Torture Doesn’t Work

As recounted in Scientific Americanas early as 1631, with the publication of Cautio Criminalis by Jesuit scholar Friedrich Spee, it was discovered that torturing criminal suspects did not work. Spee came to this conclusion in the most salient way possible:

The Duke of Brunswick in Germany invited two Jesuit scholars to oversee the Inquisition’s use of torture to extract information from accused witches. “The Inquisitors are doing their duty. They are arresting only people who have been implicated by the confession of other witches,” the Jesuits reported. The duke was skeptical. Suspecting that people will say anything to stop the pain, he invited the Jesuits to join him at the local dungeon to witness a woman being stretched on a rack. “Now, woman, you are a confessed witch,” he began. “I suspect these two men of being warlocks. What do you say? Another turn of the rack, executioners.” The Jesuits couldn’t believe what they heard next. “No, no!” the woman groaned. “You are quite right. I have often seen them at the Sabbat. They can turn themselves into goats, wolves and other animals…. Several witches have had children by them. One woman even had eight children whom these men fathered. The children had heads like toads and legs like spiders.” Turning to the flabbergasted Jesuits, the duke inquired, “Shall I put you to the torture until you confess?”

Having been put in the shoes of the many innocent people maimed and executed solely on the desperate “confessions” of the tortured, Spee was roused into writing the book that helped put an end to centuries of torture as standard law enforcement practice. Hence why all Western countries — including the U.S. via its Eighth Amendment against “cruel and unusual punishment” — recognizing torture as having neither a moral nor practical place in their society. Continue reading

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The Sedition Act of 1918

On this day in 1918, the Sedition Act was passed by Congress forbidding Americans from using “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the U.S. government, flag, or armed forces during the ongoing First World War. It also allowed the Postmaster General to refuse to deliver any mail that, in his discretion, fit this description.

This was actually the second act of its name and kind, with the first being passed early in the history of the republic, in 1798 (though it expired in 1801). Those convicted under the 1918 act generally received prison sentences of five to 20 years. Continue reading

Americans Have Less Free Time Than Medieval Peasants

It probably goes without saying that we Americans have a lot more going for us nowadays than our ancestors did several centuries ago: public health and sanitation, plentiful food and water (for the most part), democracy and free press (of a sort). But this article from Business Insider points out one big area in which we resoundingly (and perhaps surprisingly) lose out: vacation time. Continue reading

The Clout of Countries

The term “soft power” was first coined by American political scientist Joseph Nye to describe a country’s ability to exercise influence abroad without the “hard power” of military force, sanctions, and the like. It is an idea I had encountered often during my undergrad studies of political science and international relations, but its inherent fuzziness made it difficult to assess and measure; you can count tanks, troops, missiles, etc., but how do you determine something as categorically intangible as “soft power”?

To address the paucity of data on the subject, in 2015 London-based PR firm Portland teamed up with the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy to create an index of soft power: The Soft Power 30, the most recent update of which was released last month. Countries are ranked based on a combination of two sets of data: polls measuring how the countries are perceived abroad, and quantifiable variables such as the number of diplomatic missions abroad, the size of foreign-aid budgets, the number of intergovernmental organizations they are members of, and so on. Continue reading

Do Puerto Ricans Pay Taxes?, And Other Misconceptions About America’s Largest Territory

Much is made of the fact that Puerto Rico residents do not “pay taxes” and thus seem to derive a great deal of benefit from being a U.S. territory. However, this factoid is both incorrect and irrelevant.

For starters, to be precise, most Puerto Ricans do not pay federal income tax — they still pay other federal taxes in addition to their own state and local taxes. This is partly why they receive far less federal funding than U.S. states, which in turn explains why the territory is poorer than the poorest U.S. state, Mississippi, with nearly half its population below the federal poverty line. (Hence one reason why more Puerto Ricans live in the continental U.S. than on the island.) On the other hand, it is fairly wealthy and economically competitive by Latin American standards.

In any event, as an “unincorporated” territory, Puerto Rico does not enjoy the full rights and guarantees of the U.S. Constitution (including the Bill of Rights), despite the fact that its residents are otherwise full U.S. citizens (and, one should add, are disproportionately represented in the armed forces, which is allegedly one reason citizenship happened to be extended to them in 1917, during the First World War).

Subsequently, the island’s 3.5 million inhabitants are represented by only one non-voting Congressperson; by comparison, the state of Connecticut, with a similar population, has five Congresspeople (with full participation of course) plus two Senators. Puerto Ricans are also barred from voting in U.S. presidential elections, which is curious when you consider that most American citizens can vote anywhere in the world regardless of how long they have lived there — except if it is Puerto Rico (among other unincorporated U.S. territories like Guam and the Virgin Islands).

Puerto Rico’s ambiguous and often confusing political status — which includes the fact that in some world sporting events and international organizations it is treated as an independent entity — is in large part why it is so troubled. The inherent geographic and economic disadvantage of being a small island is made worse by regulations like the Jones Act, which restricts shipping to costlier U.S. owned, operated, and produced vessels. The island’s Commonwealth status prohibits it from seeking debt relief the way other U.S. polities can. Finally, many Americans — nearly half — do not even know Puerto Ricans are citizens, let alone the island’s status; this accounts for why it is usually neglected by the public

For their part, Puerto Ricans have held several referenda on the status question since 1967, with the bare majority opting for the status quo. Although the most recent plebiscite, which took place last June, saw the vast majority support statehood, the turnout was historically low, at less than a quarter of eligible voters. The issue of turnout, as well as the complicated way the questions are often phrased, has made it unclear where most Puerto Ricans lie on the issue.

Of course, any vote result would be moot unless Congress chose to follow through, since only the U.S. legislature can admit a new state. Independence is neither popular among Puerto Ricans nor (ostensibly) something the U.S. would want. (It is unclear whether Puerto Rico can unilaterally declare independence or whether this, too, would require Congressional approval.)

Anyway, this is just a beginner’s primer on a very complex and nuanced issue, and I am by no means an expert, so feel free to add something or fact check.

Finland’s Basic Income Trial Ends — But New Ideas Emerge

I previously discussed the Finland’s basic income experiment, which was one of several being conducted across the world. After a little over a year, the Finnish trial — which involved 2,000 unemployed citizens receiving a flat monthly payment of $685 — has come to an abrupt close following the government’s lack of interest. As the BBC reported:

 

Finland’s two-year pilot scheme started in January 2017, making it the first European country to test an unconditional basic income. The 2,000 participants – all unemployed – were chosen randomly.

But it will not be extended after this year, as the government is now examining other schemes for reforming the Finnish social security system.

“I’m a little disappointed that the government decided not to expand it,” said Prof Kangas, a researcher at the Social Insurance Institution (Kela), a Finnish government agency.

Speaking to the BBC from Turku, he said the government had turned down Kela’s request for €40-70m extra to fund basic income for a group of employed Finns, instead of limiting the experiment to 2,000 unemployed people.

It is unfortunate that a government otherwise open to bold new solutions to social problems has opted out of taking this trial to the next level. Continue reading

Over 80% Top Science Students Second Generation Immigrants

Among the major consequences of curtailing immigration to the United States would be losing access to the world’s best and brightest — and their children and grandchildren. As Forbes reported:

A new study from the National Foundation for American Policy found a remarkable 83% (33 of 40) of the finalists of the 2016 Intel Science Talent Search were the children of immigrants. The competition organized each year by the Society for Science & the Public is the leading science competition for U.S. high school students. In 2017, the talent search competition was renamed the Regeneron Science Talent Search, after its new sponsor Regeneron Pharmaceuticals,and a new group of 40 finalists – America’s next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians – are competing in Washington, D.C., from March 9 to 15, 2017.

Both family-based and employment-based immigrants were parents of finalists in 2016. In fact, 75% – 30 out of 40 – of the finalists had parents who worked in America on H-1B visas and later became green card holders and U.S. citizens. That compares to seven children who had both parents born in the United States.

To put that in perspective, even though former H-1B visa holders represent less than 1% of the U.S. population, they were four times more likely to have a child as a finalist in the 2016 Intel Science Talent Search than were parents who were both born in the United States.

Continue reading

How South Koreans Hold Their Corrupt Leaders to Account

South Korea is the only country in the world where all living former leaders (six in all) have either been convicted of corruption offenses, or are being tried or investigated for such crimes, including two former dictators from the 1980s and 1990s. Just last year, one of these leaders was unseated following what may have been the largest peaceful mass demonstration in modern history (and which received support from the legislature and judiciary). Three deceased leaders have also been touched by posthumous corruption scandals or investigations.

Observers once noted that corruption was a “feature rather than a bug” of Korean politics, yet the Korean people — less than two decades into being an full fledged democracy — are doing everything possible to change that. This isn’t to say that these actions are totally free from political self interest and the like — although it is worth noting that the vast majority of Koreans support these actions regardless of their political affiliation.

Korean voters have since elected, Moon Jae In, a refugee from the Korean War who was once jailed for protesting against South Korea’s dictatorship, and was a human rights lawyer before he went into politics. He is so famously “clean” that he avoids having any private or professional meetings with friends to avoid even a hint of corruption. He is subsequently one of the most popular leaders in the world, with over 70 percent approval.

Source: The Economist

The World’s Most Infamous Genocide is Quickly Being Forgotten

After over seventy years of proclaiming “never forget”– which goes hand in hand with ensuring that we stay true to “never again” — society is increasingly losing sight of that mantra, according to a survey released on Holocaust Remembrance Day this past April and reported by the New York Times: Continue reading

Nearly Half of All Americans Avoid Health Care Due to Costs

Courtesy of Forbes comes a depressing yet not entirely surprising report:

Cost continues to be a barrier to treatment with 40% of Americans who say they “skipped a recommended medical test or treatment in the last 12 months due to cost.”Another 32% were “unable to fill a prescription or took less of a medication because of the cost,” the West Health/NORC poll of more than 1,300 adults said.

“The high cost of healthcare has become a public health crisis that cuts across all ages as more Americans are delaying or going without recommended medical tests and treatments,” West Health Institute chief medical officer Dr. Zia Agha said in a statement accompanying the poll results. The survey is being released at this week’s American Society on Aging 2018 Aging in America Conference in San Francisco.

The West Health-NORC poll is the latest national survey showing Americans continued frustration with high healthcare costs even as the U.S. spends more than $3.3 trillion annually on healthcare.

Note that those who skipped doctor’s visits and medication did so despite being sick or injured — such is the state of both the U.S. healthcare system and the national economy.

Also consider the following comparative analysis of maternal healthcare from The Economist:

In 2015, the Lindo Wing [where the third royal baby was born] charged £5,670 ($8,900) for 24 hours in a deluxe room and a non-Caesarean delivery. A survey in the same year by the International Federation of Health Plans found that the average fee for such a delivery in the United States was $10,808. That rises to roughly $30,000 after accounting for care given before and after a pregnancy, according to Truven Health Analytics. Insurers cover most of the cost, but parents are still left with an average bill of about $3,000. In many European countries, free maternity care is available.

A visual of this disparity really drives the point home:

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With all the wealth and economic potential of our $18 trillion-plus economy, one would think we could figure out a way to make having a baby, or getting routine treatment at a clinic, more accessible and affordable.